By Kirsten Nelson On August 16, 2010Lisa Thorburn Serves As A Translator Between Clients And Engineers At Thorburn Associates
by Kirsten Nelson
NAME: Lisa Thorburn
COMPANY: Thorburn Associates
OVERTIME: Thorburn’s role as a master
interpreter is vital in understanding what
the client wants. As Thorburn Associates
continues to expand, she is developing
documentation and procedures for others
in the company to join her as master
SCN: Where did the inspiration for creating
Thorburn Associates come from?
Lisa Thorburn: I grew up in a family
that encouraged me to work hard in
order to achieve my goals. My father
owned his own engineering and
surveying firm and my mother had a
college degree in mathematics, which
was virtually unheard of at the time.
When I went to Michigan Tech,
I had already decided that I wanted
to be an engineer, but wasn’t sure
exactly what direction I wanted to
take. On my first day at college I
met my future husband and business
partner Steve Thorburn through
some mutual friends. He got heavily
involved in the technical aspect of
theater and electrical engineering,
and I ended up procuring a career
in computer science and technical
After college, I worked with several
large Silicon Valley companies as
a systems analyst, doing Structured
English programming. Steve began
work as an acoustical engineer and
quickly got involved in the experience
industry, working on projects
for Disney, Dolby Labs, and a host of
more typical projects and clients.
As the typical entrepreneurial
story goes, we started Thorburn
Associates (TA) in our garage in
California in 1992, with plans to
grow the company. Steve focused on
the acoustical and electrical engineering
details while I used my technical
background and communication
skills to address our clients’ needs,
which we still do at TA today.
SCN: How has the company grown,
along with the industry?
LT: By 1994 we were ready to expand
to bigger offices and bring on more
employees. In 1998 we opened an
office in North Carolina, which
helped to open up new markets to
us. Initially, our projects were often
in the entertainment field. But as
that industry has matured, it has
influenced other industries to take
acoustical and audiovisual components
into account during the design
process, and we have adapted to serve
a variety of markets.
Today, we see a lot of growth in
the civic and educational sectors, and
even military projects are on the rise.
The interesting thing about working
in the technology field is it is always
changing, which means you have to
constantly re-align your business. In
recent years, the convergence of different
devices all being controlled
over IP has really affected our industry.
It is causing the various technologies
that make up AV to really blend
into one discipline. Our clients are
realizing this too, as they are increasingly
coming to us to be a one-stop
shop for all their lighting, audiovisual,
security, structured wiring, and
SCN: How have you, personally and
professionally, learned to adapt to the
changing AV market?
A career-defining moment occurred during Lisa Thorburn’s work at the Monterey Bay
Aquarium, a project that was “HD” before HD was out in the mass public.
LT: I think there are two secrets to
dealing with any sort of rapidly
changing environment. First, you
need to be able to have a laser-tight
focus and pay attention to details.
Secondly, you have to continually
I really believe the best way to learn
something is to teach it to someone
else, so I am actively involved in a
variety of educational projects. For the
past seven years, I have taught T’ai Chi
Chih, a meditative form of T’ai Chi.
It has taught me how to center myself
and bring focus to what is important.
It has also helped me be more comfortable
teaching in other arenas.
In July I presented a white paper
on Doing Business in China at the
annual Society for Marketing Professional
Services conference in Boston.
Each year at InfoComm, Steve and I,
along with our team, present several
hours of educational sessions on a
variety of topics. I also am involved
in a variety of Lunch and Learn presentations
to clients, which I think
are crucial for getting immediate
feedback from people in the field and
working with the changing design
needs on a daily basis.
On the corporate level, TA is committed
to advancing education efforts,
but we are also always looking for
ways we can meet more of our clients’
needs. Most recently, we merged with
Gallegos Lighting in order to be able
to add full lighting design services to
our portfolio. Moving forward, as
we see opportunities for expansion
into other fields that will benefit our
clients, we will pursue them.
SCN: How has your role in the company
LT: I have always functioned on our
clients’ behalf as a sort of translator
between them and the engineers.
I start by interviewing clients and
listening to them to gain an understanding
of what it is they want. I
then interpret the technical information
and create a needs analysis or
programming document that anyone
Our clients are experts at their
business, and they come to us
because we are experts at ours. We
can’t expect them to know everything
about our technology, but we do have
to create solutions for them in a way
that they can understand.
SCN: How would you complete the following
Project management in a highly technical
and creative field requires...
three things: an impeccable attention
to detail, an ability to really listen to
the client, and a focus on providing
the right technical information to the
The most defining moment/project in
my career was...
when I was on site
at the Monterey Bay Aquarium during
final test and adjustments on the
new deep-sea linker auditorium. This
project was “HD” before HD was out
in the mass public, and included live
satellite feeds from the research ships
that were controlling an unmanned
submersible in the waters of Monterey
Canyon. While we had the satellite
feed up, we saw this “critter” it was
long like a ribbon and it had wrapped
itself around part of the submersible
like a ribbon around a car antenna.
That night at the grand opening
(strange how that happens—test and
adjust within hours of using the system
with the public for the first time,
but I digress) we found out that the
multicell siphonifera had never been
seen by “man” before and the four of
us in the control room watching the
uplink and the folks on the boat were
the first to see it. While not a personally
defining moment, it is one of my
best memories and I remember thinking
to myself: How cool is that! Our
engineering will let others see what
only a few have seen before, and in